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In 2004, Hank Gross knew he was ill and asked how much time he had left. "Night sweats and fever led to finding a ten pound tumor growing on my right kidney." Hank had a retroperitoneal sarcoma.
"They told me surgery was the only possible cure and said I'd be lucky to be alive in two to four years." He was already on disability for congestive heart failure when the cancer was diagnosed; he had been used to an active life as Director of Family Therapy Training at NYU Medical Center, running projects for the Health and Hospital Corporation, NYC's public health system, "I taught classes, organized conferences and seminars, and monitored training sites I developed," recalled Hank.
"The kidney itself was OK but due to fear of micrometastases they removed the kidney and all the plumbing on that side."
Hank recovered from treatment. "Time passed. A shadow hung over me, but with each passing day I began to believe I was going to make it. I kept telling myself 'I will survive. I know I will' over and over." Then the unthinkable happened. Hank's heart wasn't working properly. He received an artificial heart and spent two years on a transplant waiting list. After refusing the heart of a convicted felon and drug abuser and another heart with three stents, in February 2008, Hank received a new heart. To help his body accept this delicate new organ, Hank took immunosuppressant drugs. One possible side effect of this treatment is cancer.
"I knew another diagnosis of cancer was a possibility, but I really didn't have a choice. I needed a new heart or I was going to die," shared Hank, who was having periodic check ups to look for suspicious spots. Almost one year later, in January, a biopsy confirmed that the cancer had spread to Hank's lung.
With Hank's health history, he was not a candidate for surgery. Dr. Margaret von Mehren, director of our sarcoma team, began successfully treating most of Hank's tumors with chemotherapy. But the largest tumor kept growing. During a consultation with Dr. Earl King, a pulmonologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center, Hank learned that Cyberknife stereotactic radiosurgery therapy could possibly destroy his growing tumor. Cyberknife is a promising new alternative to surgery for patients whose tumors are inoperable due to other medical problems or for those refuse surgery.
"Research shows that if you believe in your doctor, you have a better likelihood of treatment success," Hank noted. "I respected Dr. von Mehren, Dr. King, and Dr. Hayes, my radiation oncologist, and saw how dedicated they are. I believed they could help me. Besides, I had nothing to lose. I needed treatment and I trusted they had found the best option."
Just as Hank was ready to begin treatment, he learned that Fox Chase had opened a state-of-the-art satellite facility for radiation therapy in Buckingham, Pennsylvania, where Shelly Hayes, MD, treats all patients. Dr. Hayes's program at Buckingham offers the most sophisticated treatment options, including Cyberknife.
"Over the years, I've been to lots of places for health issues. At some, they just treat you like a business transaction," said Hank. "But at Fox Chase, my doctors care about me. Besides being highly skilled, Dr. Hayes is very warm and engaging and her staff at Buckingham is especially nice. It's a really welcoming environment."
When Hank arrived at Fox Chase, he was "past being scared. With your first diagnosis of cancer, you're terrified. You want to go to a hospital where people care, are warm and friendly. That's Fox Chase."
In January 2010, Hank finished his last Cyberknife treatment and, except for some minor fatigue, was able to immediately resume his activities. "I enjoy reading, Netflix, fiddling with electronic gadgets, exercising and swimming. Thanks to everyone at Fox Chase, I'm expecting to walk my daughter down the aisle some day and to be around for a long time."